Chanhassen Dinner Theaters (CDT) new production of The Prom is undoubtedly the best I’ve yet seen in the nation’s largest professional dinner theatre. This show is simply the best! A musical about inclusiveness that never feels like a lecture and that pokes gentle fun at the theatrical profession, while not making you feel like an outsider. It has powerful songs, funny songs, Zazzy songs, fantastic dancing, and at the center of it all is an unruly heart that brought this blogger to tears more than once. The Prom shows us peoples worst traits and behaviors and how we can overcome those tendencies. It gives hope that we can all do better and it does it in a way that makes you want to get up and dance the night away. It champions inclusiveness, promoting a positive message while at the same time being wildly entertaining. I’ve seen the film version and enjoyed it. I’ve seen the national touring production when it came to the Orpheum Theater last spring and loved it. I’ve also been listening to the Broadway cast recording for several years, so I knew it would be good. CDT’s production exceeded my expectations, which were ridiculously high. It’s everything you want from a night at the theater. This is one of those events where cast and material come together in the most rewarding way, creating must see theater. Those who might be prejudiced to the musical’s themes of acceptance, it’s LGBTQ characters are urged to step out of their comfort zones and open their hearts. This is a show that has the power to create understanding and empathy, but it’s also just a lot of fun. It would be a shame if people missed it because they were not open to at least being exposed to these ideas. A rousing, joyous, and hilarious musical that simply cannot be missed. It’s true what they say, you’ll always regret not going to The Prom.The Prom tells the story of a small town in Indiana that has cancelled prom rather than let a high school student, Emma Nolan, take her girlfriend as her date. It opens with Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, actors who are past their prime, headlining a show, Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical, whose opening night is also going to be its closing night. They grasp onto the story in Indiana as a way to raise their profiles and rehab their unlikeable narcissistic public image. Along with fellow actors Trent and Angie, the thespians descend upon a meeting where Emma, along with her Principal Mr. Hawkins, are trying to convince the PTA to reverse their decision. What begins as a co-opting of Emma’s dilemma for their own selfish reasons, will ultimately help all of them deal with their own issues. Emma will have her ups and downs as will her closeted girlfriend Alyssa Green, whose mother is the head of the PTA. It’s a story that pokes gentle loving fun at theatrical types while also dealing with the very real issue of intolerance towards, and the need, for inclusion of LGBTQ identifying indivuduals.
The Prom was based on a real life incident the book is by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin with music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Beguelin. It’s brilliantly structured, basically a good natured parody of theater actors and a message play about what it is like to be an LGBTQ identifying teenager in middle America. Somehow it weaves these two disparate things into a perfectly flowing musical that never feels anything but organic. The theater groups songs are mainly comical, the songs focusing on Emma and Alyssa are more emotionally rewarding, but that isn’t to say they are not fun. Sklar and Beguelin have created half a dozen truly memorable songs with lines like “Note to self, don’t be gay in Indiana” and “And nobody out there ever gets to define, the life I’m meant to lead with this unruly heart of mine”. Everytime I experience the final song “It’s Time to Dance”, I want to get up and dance myself it’s such a driven and inspiring upbeat song. There’s not a single song I don’t like in the entire show and on my musical playlist where I usually try to limit myself to no more than three songs from any one show, it occupies six slots. When you leave the theatre, you’ll be adding them to your playlist as well.
The Prom is filled with wonderful pairings between performers and characters but none quite as perfect as Monty Hays as Emma Nolan. Emma is the heart at the center of The Prom and my heart overflowed to the point of leaking out through my eyes as I watched Hays bring her to life. In the inclusive spirit of the show, Hays who identifies as transgender/nonbinary, is cast because they are the perfect person for the role. Hays will break your heart in a scene at the close of Act 1 when Emma is completely devastated and blindsided by an act of cruelty. When Emma finds her voice, her way to to fight back against the homophobic community, Hays’s rendition of the song “Unruly Heart” is note perfect. Hays is so open with the audience, that even a middle aged cis male like me, completely identifies with this teenage lesbian. He finds the vulnerability but also the humor and courage of the character in a performance that engages in such a strong emotional way. It has the power to evoke genuine empathy, the kind that has the ability to promote change. The other actor that seems to have arrived at The Prom by way of casting heaven is Tod Petersen as Barry Glickman. Petersen plays the gay thespian with such humor, he’s theatrical because he’s playing a self absorbed actor but he’s not a caricature. Petersen appears to be having a blast with the character and that fun is infectious. There are wonderful turns by Jodi Carmel and Joenathan Thomas as Dee Dee and Principal Hawkins, who’s more mature love story between the delusional star and the grounded educator, becomes another model for personal growth.
The show is directed by Chanhassen Artistic Director Michael Brindisi who has a sure handle on the humor and energy of this musical. Music Director Andy Kust and his band do these wonderfully energetic songs justice. Scenic Designer Nayna Ramey accomplishes a lot with minimal set pieces as there are quite of few locations needed, so the approach is a few things for each that can be brought on and off quickly. It works well to keep the show flowing and it’s always clear where every scene is set. Rich Hamson does a nice job of matching the general look and feel of the Broadway production without feeling slavishly beholden to what has come before. I particularly loved Emma’s Prom outfit and the costumes of the non-equity cast of Godspell. The highest praise goes to Choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson. One thing that Chanhassen never fails to do is wow us with the dancing in musical numbers. The Prom continues that tradition especially in the prom dance sequences of which there are two. The precision of the dancers is impressive, and there are some fantastic moves from Hayes and Helen Anker who plays Angie during the “Zazz” number.
Is it weird to say you are proud of a theatre? Maybe, but it’s how I feel about CDT decision to produce The Prom. When they announced it as their next production I was more than a little surprised. I love CDT, they always mount high quality productions of crowd pleasing shows, but they generally tend to play it safe. The Prom is a show that due to it’s characters and themes could alienate some of CDT regular patrons. The sad thing is, if they give it a chance it will appeal to their core audience. I applaud CDT for taking a chance on The Prom. It’s as crowd pleasing and entertaining as anything they’ve ever done and I think it has the potential to bring a younger audience to the theatre. I attend a lot of theater and believe me, audiences in general are skewing older and older every year. It’s important for theatre’s like CDT to attract new audiences, shows like The Prom can help to do that. Due to the themes of the show and the reality that it’s a bit of a gamble, it has a shorter than usual run for a CDT production of only four months. The Prom runs through June 10th, for more information and to purchase Tickets go to https://chanhassendt.com/theprom/. See below for a way to save $20/ticket on performances through March 12th and an opportunity to see it with me and hear from some of the folks who have worked so hard to create this unforgettable theatre experience.
My fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers and I would like you to be our date to The Prom at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre for the March 4th matinee performance! We have a discount code TCTB1 that will save you $20 per ticket, and we’ll be hosting a talkback afterwards with the Director Michael Brindisi and cast members Monty Hays, Maya Richardson, and Tod Petersen. click on this link to purchase tickets. The code should apply automatically to get you that discount. And hey, if you can’t make it to the March 4th performance, you can use that code for any performance through March 12th. Follow the TCTB on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers.
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*note portions of this review have been reworked from previous review of The Prom
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